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A day in the life of Celebrant Joanne Smith VCANZ
How long have you been a celebrant for?
I’ve been a professional celebrant and CANZ member for fourteen years.
Why did you become a celebrant?
During a week-long leadership course, which helped us unravel what made us tick, I experienced an “AHA” moment. My ‘tick’ was becoming a celebrant, a service role where I could shine a light for others. Immediately, I enrolled for all AUT celebrant papers and joined Celebrants Aotearoa.
Do you have another job besides being a celebrant?
For the first ten years of being a celebrant, I worked full-time for a wine company, sometimes travelling 600 to 1,000km a week. I mainly did weddings at weekends, sometimes three, rarely a funeral. I don’t know how I did it. Now, I’m a 24/7 celebrant fully committed to weddings and funerals.
What ceremonies do you perform?
Mostly weddings and funerals.
What do you enjoy about being a celebrant?
I love the excitement and heightened energy of a wedding. When all the preparation comes together, proud fathers, gorgeous mums, overcome grooms, radiant brides and ‘that moment’ where the couple are just hanging on to hear, “It is my great honour to pronounce you to be husband and wife.”
However, it’s funerals that I’m most drawn to: holding space for others while they say ‘goodbye’, honouring a life, facilitating a safe and inclusive space for everyone, all the pastoral care, sharing truths, and listening to truths. Holding a family together in gathering their stories, wishes and needs. It calls on my all.
What are some of the hardest parts of being a celebrant?
There are several challenging aspects of being a celebrant: when conflict is involved, holding space for healing and forgiveness, taking the funeral of a baby or child, a suicide or a victim of a dreadful accident. But, over time, you learn to keep your emotions in check, sharing aroha, empathy, and compassion.
What are some of the most unique rituals or ideas you have had to do a wedding ceremony?
When a couple really buys into rituals and ceremony for their wedding, magic happens. I’m talking about creating a sacred circle (using salt or pieces of stone), setting the cardinal points of the compass and their symbolism, handfasting, the loving cup ritual, the circling of parents around the couple, each giving their blessing. There are so many ways to enrich the marriage experience.
What was the most memorable ceremony you have performed?
The best wedding ever was a rainbow wedding. At the end of the ceremony, guests poured buckets of soapy water over a water slide lining the aisle on the lawn. The couple, both in white, slid down the water slide while being bombed with balloons containing coloured water. They emerged wearing rainbows suits. Even the marriage licence was splattered with rainbow smudges.
What is one poem, reading or song you like to perform at a funeral or wedding ceremony?
For a funeral, Anne Powell’s beautiful blessing, ‘May the soft light at the end of the day heal you…’
For a wedding, it’s a toss-up between the extract from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, ‘You can give without loving, but you can never love without giving…’ or 1 Corinthians 13.
When did you join Celebrants Aotearoa? And what do you appreciate about the association?
I joined Celebrants Aotearoa in 2007. CANZ underpins my service as a professional celebrant, the quality and integrity of my service. It is also the ‘best resource’ for information, networking, and ongoing training opportunities. And it’s the only professional association in NZ for celebrants.
What would be your typical day as a celebrant?
My best and oldest friend phoned to tell me that her husband had died suddenly. She was in shock, grief-stricken and trying to piece together what would happen next. It hit me hard too. I had a wedding the next day, and I also had to prepare for the four-hour drive to Wellington to be with her and her family and plan for the funeral. Prepping for a funeral is quite intense; there is a lot to pack into a small time frame.
Knowing this family well, I took a chance and created a draft of the service before leaving home. I only had half a day with the family, and a great deal of that was spent talking with individuals and providing pastoral care to the grieving. I then hid in a study with my printer to glean the gold nuggets to make the service indelibly for them.
After a couple of hours, I emerged to read the draft to a room full of people like a board meeting. Corrections made instantly, bits removed, more added. I was still tweaking the script at breakfast on the day.
Dotty, the 1933 Studebaker hearse, gleamingly black, was parked beside the entrance. Perfect for John’s departure – how he would’ve liked to get under the bonnet and tinker.
I wasn’t nervous or concerned that I might ‘lose it’. The service went well; grandchildren helped light candles, we shared stories, we laughed a lot, and there were lots of tears. The big boys produced a half bottle of single malt belonging to John and toasted him around his casket.
I delivered personal messages to individuals that I’d carefully composed before leaving home. It was a poignant farewell giving it my all and giving in to absolute fatigue that night.
I learnt a lot about John that I had not discovered during our 50-year friendship. I learned a lot about taking a risk and sticking with my instincts. I learnt that my own family, who were there, were moved and very proud of how I managed to balance laughter, tears, comfort, and show respect with a great deal of love.
What advice do you have for someone new to the industry?
Believe in yourself and your ability, keep upskilling, be the best you can and don’t settle for mediocrity, and most importantly, be authentic, in a ceremony, on social media, in meetings, in vendor relationships, in celebrant networks.
How do you relax after performing a ceremony?
Silence and food.